Manchester City have sent their long-suffering fans into dreamland after recording a win at Newcastle that puts them three points away from clinching the Premier League title.
In Sunday afternoon’s final game their title opponents – and current champions – Manchester United completed a routine win over Swansea that ensures the race for the trophy goes right to the last day of the season. United are level on points with their city counterparts but a goal difference deficit of eight leaves the final outcome out of their hands with one game to go.
What’s been a pulsating season in England’s top flight just continues to deliver and aside from the title race, neutrals across the country
are doubly blessed by the fact that not only are the relegation issues going right to the wire too, but also the battle for Champions League placing for next season. The number of permutations that are still possible is bewildering and should leave football enthusiasts salivating in anticipation at the prospect of a roller-coaster end to the campaign.
For Manchester City the 44-year wait to be called officially the best team in England is only a home win against QPR away. Given the way Newcastle have been playing recently, spearheaded by the astonishing goalscoring form of January signing Papiss Cisse, this looked on paper to be a potential slip-up for City. However, after holding out during a keenly contested first half City stepped it up a gear after the break and were steered to victory by a Yaya Toure brace.
It’s been the artistry of City’s ‘little men’ that have captured most of the headlines this year, but Toure is proving arguably their most vital signing of the Sheikh Mansour era. So many times does the Ivorian seem to provide a breakthrough whether it be with a goal, as also in last season’s FA Cup final which gave City their first major silverware in 35 years, or a an assist resulting from one of his unstoppable charges forward with the ball. Toure is like a juggernaut when he sets off, far too powerful to knock off the ball, but aided also by a surprisingly silky touch which enables him to keep the ball under his spell even when moving at pace. He also possesses as fine an eye for a pass as you’d expect from an erstwhile Barcelona midfielder. Put together, these gifts, alongside his equally proficient defensive traits, allow him to strongly rival Patrick Vieira in the running for the accolade of most complete midfielder in Premier League history.
Newcastle, who unveiled a statue honouring legendary former manager Sir Bobby Robson before the game, were looking for a win that would put them within touching distance of qualification for next season’s Champions League, but it’s a tribute to City’s desire and work rate that the home side’s attacking qualities were so rarely apparent during this match. City took the lead their dominance had deserved when Toure exchanged a quick one-two with Sergio Aguero before curling a low shot past Tim Krul in the 70th minute.
After wasting numerous excellent chances to add the second and almost paying for it at the other end, City sealed the win in stoppage time when Toure finished off a sweeping counter attack. Manager Roberto Mancini was delighted with the win but characteristically urged caution. “It is not finished. It is important that we get three points next week, we need a big effort – there is one game more. I think for us it should be a normal week. We don’t change nothing, QPR will be tough, they are fighting for relegation.”
United, competitive to the end as always, were comfortable winners in the four ‘o’ clock kick-off at home to mid-table Swansea. The seemingly absurd resulting of Paul Scholes in third place in the Football Writer’s Player of the Year Awards was made to look altogether more reasonable when he gave United the vital lead they required in the 28th minute.
Such an influence has the pocket dynamo had on his return from retirement that the United fans must be thinking ‘what if’ he’d been available all season?’.
Ashley Young curled in a precise second towards the end of the first period and United were eager to add more to reduce City’s superior goal difference, but despite several chances in the second half no more goals were to arrive. It means United can only retain their title if City fail to win next Sunday and United better their result in their away match at Sunderland.
Sir Alex Ferguson was however still bullish about United’s chances: “We’ve won the title three times on the last day, but obviously City are red-hot favourites, there’s no question about that. However Queens Park Rangers need a point, they’re fighting for survival in the premier division. The whole future of their club could be resting on this particular game. You have to hope – that’s the great thing about football, things happen and you never quite understand why they happen.”
Down at the bottom QPR did themselves the world of good on Sunday with an extremely late win over Stoke. Big money signing Djibril Cisse may well have fully justified the faith shown in him by Mark Hughes by notching the winner in the 89th minute. It puts Hughes’ men two points clear of the bottom three, although with their final game being away to expectant City they are still in a precarious position. A huge match takes place tonight at Ewood Park between 19th-placed Blackburn and 17th-placed Wigan. An away win would put Wigan above QPR and ensure safety for Roberto Martinez’s plucky underdogs for another season and at the same time relegate Steve Kean’s Blackburn. The Lancastrians start the match six points from safety and essentially looking for a miracle from the final games.
Four points above Blackburn are 18th-placed Bolton, who astonishingly threw away a two-goal lead in their home match against West Brom. A Martin Petrov penalty, followed by a Billy Jones own goal had provided ample boost for Own Coyle’s team’s survival hopes, but they were pegged back by two goals in the last 15 minutes. Chris Brunt smashed in from distance and then James Morrison capped a return from a lengthy absence with a last minute leveller that broke Bolton hearts. The Trotters are relying on a win in their last match at Stoke combined with either a defeat for QPR at City – the most likely scenario – or Wigan losing both their remaining games, tonight at Blackburn and at home to Wolves on Sunday.
Elsewhere, in the race for the final Champions League places, none of the teams placed between third and sixth seem to be able to make up their mind if they really want to qualify for it or not. Newcastle’s home defeat to City was especially regrettable owing to Arsenal’s failure to beat Norwich on Saturday. An astonishing game witnessed the Gunners leading 1-0, trailing 2-1, leading 3-2 and finally having to settle for a 3-3 draw against the spirited East Anglians.
Robin Van Persie netted two more for Arsenal – equalling Thierry Henry’s club record for the most goals scored in a season – and Yossi Benayoun curled in a early goal, but Wes Hoolahan, Grant Holt and Steve Morison replied for Norwich.
The draw meant Arsenal had handed the initiative back to Tottenham in the battle for what could be the vital third place, since a fourth-placed finish would be inadequate should Chelsea win their Champions League final against Bayern Munich and take that slot.
However, Spurs could not take advantage though, an Emmanuel Adebayor penalty earned Spurs a 1-1 draw after going behind to a Ciaran Clark deflected effort. The result meaning they remain a point behind their North London rivals whilst the point for Villa means they have finally managed to stave off relegation.
Newcastle are a further point behind Tottenham in fifth and Chelsea themselves are still not out of the reckoning for a top four finish, although they must win both their remaining games to have any chance. The Blues play their game in hand against Liverpool on Tuesday evening, a repeat of Saturday’s cup final.
The weekend’s most inconsequential fixtures saw already-relegated Wolves draw 0-0 at home to seventh-placed Everton, a result which at least ended Wolves’ dreadful run of home defeats.
Meanwhile, Fulham beat Sunderland 2-1. Martin Jol’s team are ending the season strongly, as indicated by their moving above Liverpool into eighth place. Star men Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele got their goals either side of a Phil Bardsley reply for the Black Cats.
Tags: arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Premier League, Robin Van Persie, Spurs, Yaya Toure